A friend of mine recently told me about a wise practice she is incorporating into her life. She did not describe it as wise, but I now realize that it is. At the time I thought, “It is really good that you are doing that. That will help you with your time there.” It was not until this past week that I realized I should be doing the exactly the same thing.
One of my closest friends from college has moved to Rwanda to work on a literacy project with an NGO there. (Yes, I know, she is awesome) Having lived in Africa before (Senegal) and traveled extensively around the continent, she describes Rwanda as perhaps the most beautiful country she has ever been to. To prepare for her move she has begun learning Kinurwanda and studying up as much as she can on the country’s history.
Which is a difficult history. And the wise thing that Tristen is doing is that she is alternating. She alternates what she reads. After she reads a book about Rwanda she then reads about something– anything else. Again, the stories of Rwanda are difficult. From horrifying memoires of genocide to frustrating histories of corruption, she told me you can’t read too much of about it back to back with out becoming depressed or discouraged.
I thought: that makes sense. You shouldn’t cry during every book you read. This sounds like a sane thing Tristen is doing as she settles in and adjusts to a new home. I thought: this girl is so smart and self-aware. This is why we are friends.
A week or so after my conversation with Tristen I finished the book Design Flaws of the Human Condition by Paul Schmidtberger, an ex-pat writer living in Paris and very nice guy. His novel is about an unlikely friendship between adjunct professor of English Ken and business-woman Iris. Their adventures in New York City only begin in anger management class, and it simply gets funnier from there.
It turned me into that annoying person in the cafe who is smiling at their book and laughing out loud far too often for it to be cute. Design Flaws was a literary breath of fresh air. It reminded me of people I know, college and the eager-beaver East Coast. Reading it was like listening to a story being told by one of my funnier friends (Tristen, Brandon, or Becky for example).
In the weeks just before reading Design Flaws, I’d hit a wall. Some might call it the end of the semester, but I could not focus on the books I was reading. I crawled through them without enjoying the process. What was wrong? Thinking back to Tristen’s method of reading I realized that I was not alternating, and maybe I needed to.
My research topics are no picnic or romantic comedy. They are now that I think about it, pretty depressing. While in Paris, I’ve focused on: colonialism, postcolonialsm, slavery, race sciences, and language conflict. Not so sunny. Even the novels I’ve been reading: Wide Saragasso Sea, Under the Volcano, The Awakening, all downers!
I am a lover of comedy and generally happy person, and for my mental health I must start alternating.
So that I will no longer embarrass myself in cafes I will increase my intake of happy stories.
So that I will look less often at the people around me and grumble “Orientalists, all!”
So that I will avoid ranting.
I will alternate.
This concept might apply to music as well! Now where did I put that Motown Christmas CD…
**This post is dedicated to Tristen Edwards (whom I wish had a blog), my free Harvard DAPA water bottle (“3/4 of Harvard Students Alternate”) and to the Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore in Paris.
Filed under: Books | Tags: books, faulkner, ghosts, golems, lies, maps and legends
Michael Chabon tricked me. In reading the last essay in his 2008 collection Maps and Legends, after building much trust and admiration for his thoughts and writing, I was fooled– led to trust fiction in the way one trusts memoir. Chabon’s concluding essay, “Golems I Have Known, or, Why My Elder Son’s Middle Name Is Napoleon, A Trickster’s Memoir” begins: “I saw my first golem in 1968, in Flushing, New York, shortly before my fifth birthday.” and its postscript begins, “The preceding is the text of a talk that I delivered publicly several times over the course of 2003-04.” A talk. Hmmm. Chabon goes on to explain that the preceeding text is normally delivered by him in front of a live audience complete with gestures, facial expressions and intonations that suggest to the listener that he is lying. He continues to say that most people got the deception and looked to find the nuggets of truth in his story- where he lived as a child, his mariage history etc. But there were the few listeners who believed him, even though, he insists, the fiction was “obvious.” He calls them “suckers” and admits to brief pleasure in fooling these people. However the pleasure is immediately followed by guilt and fear of a lie growing out of control, like he suggests, a golem (inert human-shaped mound of earth brought to life, re: Frankenstein’s monster) tends to grow.
But as I read along through the initial essay, I wanted to believe his story. I thought to myself along the way, “what crazy circumstances” and “maybe this is possible, I don’t know anything about Kabbalah…” But in spite of the colorful and supernatural details, I leant toward believing my narrator. He had gained my trust after 200 pages of writing, and I believe that it is my nature as a reader to be sucked deep into the text, for better or for worse. One of Chabon’s points is that this is totally safe and possible when reading fiction. You can safely go along for the ride while knowing deep down that you are being told a story, or that your seatbelt and the safety bar will somehow hold you in while you’re upside down screaming your head off. (He uses more frequently the magician and audience analogy, fine, I like roller coasters) But a safe rush is what I get from reading a really compelling novel or watching a dark and scary movie.
To be honest though, this is not all that accounts for my believing Mr. Chabon’s memoir/lies. I will admit that I deep down want to believe in the supernatural. I want to believe in ghosts, roaming spirits, things brought to life and possession. My catholic and southern backgrounds have taught me to do so. As writers like William Faulkner or Walker Percy insist, the modern world, especially the modern southern world, is full of ghosts. Every family carries them with them– infamous lives, unhappy endings, the horrible specter of the unknown past. It may be what we don’t know about ourselves and our family that frightens us most. Genetics and history mostly explain the nephew who is a carbon copy of a great-grandfather or the doomed nature of a piece of property whose violent history repeats itself over time. But part of it, the fun of the fiction of life is that we can’t explain everything with our own knowledge. There will always be unanswered questions, dangling familial clauses.
In spite of his fibs, I believe that Michael Chabon believes this too. His interest in Yiddish and the ghosts of its former speakers, its never-born-in-the-same-way speakers, what Europe might have been without the Holocaust, speaks to his curiosity in ghosts. I like to think of ghosts as the historical puzzle pieces we can’t fit together, not so much a physical/spiritual thing that moves furniture or chills your room, but the unavoidable past unknowns in each person’s life. Like religion, the idea of them comforts some who feel the present world as they experience it does not explain everything.
I’ll end this writing that may not have made sense at all with one of my favorite passages from Absalom, Absalom!
Then hearing would reconcile and he would seem to listen to two separate Quentins now– the Quentin Compson preparing for Harvard in the South, the deep South dead since 1865 and people with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts, listening, having to listen, to one of the ghosts which had refused to lie still even longer than most had, telling him about old ghost-times; and the Quentin Compson who was still too young to deserve yet to be a ghost, but nevertheless having to be one for all that, since he was born and bred in the deep South the same as she was– the two separate Quentins now talking to one another in the long silence of notpeople, in notlanguage…
If every now and then we all spoke with our own personal ghost, maybe we could come very close, as Quentin does, to understanding our past and the past of others. In the meantime, I cherish this potential for ghosts in whatever form it can be found: memoir, lie, talk, novel, tall-tale or family legend. I compare the element of truth in every lie to the element of reality in every ghost.
Filed under: Books | Tags: books, history channel, states, texas, tv, us history, writing
I was initially very excited to read the compact history of American borders, How the States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein. I thought in its coverage of every state in the union and DC I would be able to get a really terrific sense of how the nation’s geography came together over time. I knew that it was an example of pop-history or non-fiction marketed to all readers, so I brought it on my plane ride to Las Vegas thinking it would be the perfect travel read. However, I was left wanting, on many levels. The book barely skims the surface of the American whey and glazes over important historical events or trends such as the American Revolution, Manifest Destiny, and the Civil War.
I do not intend this review to be a rant, but I would like to sketch out the problems with this book and how they relate to the things that I did like about it. To begin, the structure of this book is its biggest fault. It is divided into sections by state, in alphabetical order, each piece averaging 5 to 10 pages in length. While this does make the text very approachable, you can pick and choose your states at your whim without fearing that you will lose some of the story, it makes for a very disconnected historical narrative. In practice, Stein’s tool to alleviate this is to insert referrals or jumps to other sections. I found this very jarring but examine an example for yourself.
“South Dakota inherited its eastern border from the state of Minnesota. This border combines a straight line, due north, with a series of water-ways that, taken together, traverse an essentially north-south line. (For more on this border, go to MINNESOTA.)” (255)
Many times these connections are obvious, especially after you realize that he talks about every border of every state. It is implied that each border with be discussed at least twice, depending on how many states share it. In other instances he directs you to figures on different pages which is helpful. But often Stein refers his readers to a section that comes after his introduction titled “DON’T SKIP THIS.” DONT SKIP THIS is a ten page section that gives brief information on “The French and Indian War Border,” “The Louisiana Purchase Borders,” “The Borders Inherited from England and Spain,” “Multistate Borders Resulting from Slavery” and “Multistate Borders That Do Not Connect.” I am not sure why Stein included so many of these jumps. Did he assume that readers would digest the book piece-meal or only certain favored states/regions? The jumps were exteremly interruptive of the text, and sometimes they seemed to insult the reader. Take this instance where he uses two jumps in a row to the same section:
“For this reason, under the Compromise of 1850, Texas sold the latitude of New Mexico’s southern border. (See Figure 119, in NEW MEXICO.) This sale resulted in the right-angled western border of Texas that we see today. (To find out why Congress wanted the land starting at the 103rd meridian, go to NEW MEXICO.)”
He’s right. Maybe I should go to the state itself for more direct access to this information. But you can see perhaps after these examples, why I often felt that I was reading one of those “create your own ending” books. I used to despise the constant page-flipping in those, even as a kid. “If you want to take off the lid off the witch’s cauldron go to page 105. If you would rather wait under the table until she leaves for the night, keep reading.”
But don’t worry fellow Texans, I’ll return to the Lone Star State section shortly.
This bookstore was a lucky find thanks to a last-minute tip from a friend. With four floors of mostly used books, Moe’s Books is a Berkeley legend.
The first owner Moe Moskowitz (a character known to smoke a fat cigar behind the desk) opened the shop in 1959. The store looked to circulate new and used books with inviting selling and trading policies.This promoted an ever-updating collection that grew rapidly.
In addition to new and used books, Moe’s has an impressive collection of antiques, out-of-print and rare books on the fourth floor.
Just down the road from Berkeley’s campus on Telegraph Road, Moe’s is located in a hip section of town that screams California. It’s hard to say just what is so pleasing about Moe’s, the library-like sections, the many vintage Modern Library editions, the breath of the collection (from Business and Economics to Western Americana), or the very reasonable prices. Whatever it is, Moe’s now claims a sizable piece of my heart, and my paycheck.
The President and I have a shared summer reading book. I have not written about this one, but I do recommend The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell for some sizzling southern crime fiction.
Here’s what the article’s author X had to say about the book:
Daniel Woodrell’s bayou, meanwhile, is a world apart—from princes or sun-drenched, charming bookstores. One of the characters in “Muscle for the Wing,” the second book in Woodrell’s trilogy, describes his own ideal vacation:
“Aw,” Shade said, “listen, up there it’s another world. That’s what I want on my vacation. I don’t want a beach version of St. Bruno. I want another world for five days. The river up there, it’s not the color of shoe leather like this one here. Huh-uh. It’s cleaner’n baby piss and cooler’n Duke Ellington. You drop in a six-pack and in ten minutes you got the perfect beer.” He emptied his own mug of brew. “I got a pup tent, too, you know. For comfort.”
Pup tents, six-packs, baby-piss metaphors—it all sounds nothing like the public image of the President (and in fact, sounds a bit like a caricature of his emerging opponent, Rick Perry.) But that’s what fiction offers, quick and reliable transport to another world, places that can feel immediate but that are unreachable even by Air Force One, Marine One, and a motorcade to the beach.
And if you still want more, a cool site with Obama’s tenure reading list: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/08/14/obama-s-book-club.html
I suddenly feel so close, yet so far, from Martha’s Vineyard.
Enjoy some rest, Mr. President.
Filed under: Books | Tags: blues, books, charlotte perkins gilman, gender, herland, scales, zora neale hurston
Oh, comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.
Oh, comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.”
Zora Neale Hurston captured the old blues song. Charlotte Perkins Gilpin wrote the novel. But most recently it has been discovered that a certain species of mites has been doing it without men, though not without some incest…
Check out this National Geographic headline: “Cloned Fathers Mate with Insect Daughters–From Inside: The self-fertilizing females may eventually make males obsolete, model suggests”
As the image might not suggest, sometimes, when female cottony cushion scales “develop in fertilized eggs, excess sperm grows into tissue within the daughters. … This parasitic tissue, genetically identical to the female’s father, lives inside the female and fertilizes her eggs internally—rendering the female a hermaphrodite and making her father both the grandfather and father of her offspring, genetically speaking.”
According to the article, this parasitic male is like “an epidemic” that will eventually render all male scales obsolete. The female cottony cushion scales will rule and create an unprecedented all-girl world, if on a minuscule…scale.
However, this world is not a new conception. It was imagined in early-twentieth century American fiction with the 1915 novel, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilpin. (CPG is most famous for her wonderfully creepy short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” –read it!)
Herland is about these male explorers who discover the isolated all-female world of Herland. After losing all of their community’s men in a volcanic eruption and slave rebellion and finding themselves geographically isolated by a mountain range, the women of Herland decided to continue life until they died out. Until one day a funny thing happened.
One of the women realized that she was with child even though she had not been with a man. Essentially, this sort of immaculate or hermaphroditic conception becomes a genetic trait of the clan– and thus Herland grows.
These women live off the land and are proud of their independence from men. Over time, many generations cannot remember men or have never seen any– until the society is penetrated by the sociologist explorers. The tale is interestingly narrated by a man, the student Van.
Gilpin’s utopian story reflects on societal constructions of gender and marriage, what it means to be a man or woman, husband or wife. It ends with uncertainty as one of the women leaves with Van. What her fate will be in American society is uncertain at best.
Returning back to the old blues lyrics that Zora Neale Hurston recorded in 1930′s for the Federal Writers’ Project, it is clear that this sort of post-male world has long been imagined if not pined over and feared by Americans.
“Comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.
Oh, comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.
Oh, comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.”
The ominous tone of these lyrics suggests that the time is coming when a woman won’t need a man. It is upon us, the singer says. In this blues line, the repetition of the exact same phrase means that the alteration in tone can only be found in the melody or the inflection of the singer. Instead of a blues riff that said something like, “Comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man. Oh, comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man. Oh, comes at a time that we can’t understand,” this riff is consistant. To me, this adds to the ominousness– we cannot imagine what this “time” will mean for society, we can only repeat the prophecy over and over.
Gilpin took a stab at imagining this world, but did not come to a firm conclusion. The blues laments and warns of this unknown society. I Guess all we can do is keep watching the scales.
Filed under: Books | Tags: books, cities, Frank Norris, realism, sheep, The Octopus
The Octopus by Frank Norris, (full title: The Epic of Wheat: The Octopus, a Story of California) was published in 1901 as part of an intended three part series about wheat. Norris sadly died after completing the second volume. But Norris, who the inside cover of this book describes as “strikingly handsome,” wrote about more than just wheat. He wanted to capture, in the style of the newly popular European realists, the destructive push and pull between wheat farmers and railroad monopolies in the West. He essayed to show how these big businesses (a popular depiction of them at this time was in the form of an octopus) hurt American families and small businesses while poisoning the whole industry with their black gold ink. Unclear if Norris will at any point talk about “big government” but I look forward to the likely parallels between his nostalgia for a wild, more independent America and some of the opinions expressed today about a changing american market and economy.
For now a passage, in which I feel Norris may not only be talking about sheep. His dreary account of this pack resonates with some the turn-of-the-century fears of big American cities becoming urban wastelands of lost abused and anonymous souls.
The sheep were spread out roughly in the shape of a figure eight, two larger herds connected by a smaller, and were headed to the southward, moving slowly, grazing on the wheat stubble as they proceeded. But the number seemed incalculable. Hundreds upon hundreds of gray, rounded backs, all exactly alike, huddled, close-packed, alive, hid the earth from sight. It was no longer an aggregate of individuals. It was a mass– a compact, solid, slowly moving mass, huge, without form, like a tick pressed growth of mushrooms, spreading out in all directions over the earth. From it there arose a vague murmur, confused, inarticulate, like the sound of very distant surf, while all the air in the vicinity was heavy with the warm, ammoniacal odor of the thousands of crowding bodies (28).
Filed under: Books, Films | Tags: books, disaster, duras, french, hiroshima, plays
I just finished reading the screenplay Hiroshima mon amour. The French is quite pretty in its simplicity. With short clips of dialogue such as:
Lui: Tu n’as rien vu a Hiroshima. Rien.
Elle: J’ai tout vu. Tout… Ainsi l’hôpital je l’ai vu. J’en suis sure. L’hopital existe a Hiroshima. Comment aurais-je pu eviter de le voir?
Lui: Tu n’as pas vu d’hôpital a Hiroshima. Tu n’as rien vu a Hiroshima…
Elle: Je n’ai rien inventé.
Lui: Tu as tout inventé.
I haven not yet seen the movie, though I was shown the first three minutes or so in Jason Stevens’ Faulkner class. He wanted us to see the use of montage and disordered scenes, suggesting the large influence Faulkner had on Japanese authors and screenwriters. He argued that many Japanese people related Japan’s history to that of the rise and fall of the Old and New South. I do not know enough about Japanese history to write any more on this comparison. However, Faulkner’s celebrity in Japan is undeniable. In Houghton Library our class was able to look at the transcript and photos of one of Faulkner’s visit to a Japanese university. Indeed, his reception there was much warmer and more immediate than here in the states.
but the book. it ends: She says to him, “Hi-ro-shi-ma. C’est ton nom.” and he calls her “Ne-vers-en-Fran-ce.” What is the significance of these appellations? Does Duras suggest that for these two characters their identity is almost completely a result of where they are from? Are these locations, where they were both tremendously scarred, all that they amount to, boil down to, as people? “vers” can mean “towards” in French. Is there a play on words, un jeu de mots, going on here– the Japanese man saying “not towards France?” something like that? Maybe not. but Ne-vers is a great name for a city as the man says at least once in the script. And what a happy correspondence in English: nevers. multiple never. more than one never? what is the plural of an ultimatum like that? It somehow does not have the happy ring of “Never Never Land.”
The land of Never, where she (she who is never named in the film, but through the screen play we come to learn is called Riva) was trapped in a cave, shorn like a sheep with bloody fingers from their attempts to climb the walls. she is left in the cave because she has shamed her family, for sleeping with the German enemy.
Nevers. c’est superbe comme mot. je l’aime bien.
My next task, watch this movie in full. From the snippet I’ve seen it’s beautiful. I would love to know anyone’s thoughts on the screenplay or film if you’ve encountered them. I’d wanted to read it for a long time. Now I will never say that I never read it. voila– some nevers.
Today I finished Sanctuary by William Faulkner (yes, I am still on this kick).
Actually, no, it’s not a kick it’s just something I cannot stop doing. Reading Faulkner that is.
But Sanctuary. It is unlike many of the other Faulkner novels I have read. It is salacious, it is racy, it is in your face alcohol, rape, prostitution, murder, bloody corncobs..
That being said, I still recommend it. It is easier to read than a lot of Faulkner’s stuff (I started reading the Sound and the Fury three times over three years) and he is slightly less subtle about what actually takes place in this story than his usual cryptic what-just-happened-i’m-totally-lost style. So inSanctuary, you’ll probably follow about 80 percent of what is actually happening to the characters.
I don’t want to give away the story so I’ll sell you on it with the name of one of the main characters: Temple Drake.
Reading Faulkner, as one should, with Christianity in the back of my mind, I am brought here:
If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which [temple] ye are. 1 Corinthians 3:17.
Jesus’ sole noted use of violent force in the bible is when he cleared the temple of vendors and salesman calling it a “den of thieves.” Its violation makes him very angry and aggressive.
Drake to me sounds like how one might say “drank” with a certain more southern accent, and in a way Like the collision of events and bad timing that surrounds Temple Drake expels her from what was a privileged sheltered life at university. Her own violation evokes Jesus’ reaction as it was described in the gospels and might cause you to put down the book a few times.
We remeet Horace Benbow from Flags in the Dust– who gosh darned really means well, but is too ignorant of the tone and ilk of his own home town to see the obvious, inevitable events to follow the doomed court case he plays lawyer in, defending a penniless black bootlegger accused of murder and more.
If summer does not already have you sweating, this book will light a fire under you. Crime fiction and summer– a natural pairing that I recommend. I was barely able to finish this book, sitting by the Charles river on page 305 of 309 (Vintage edition, 1958) before a force of nature overtook my hurried reading and a menacing downpour sent me fleeing for shelter at the Dunster/Mather shuttle stop. A fire alarm had gone off at the apartments across the street and soon three firetrucks blared in front of me. The rain picked up and I knew this was not the place or time to finish Sanctuary.
Later on I did get to page 309. And it felt… I don’t know. I was not relieved, nor was I sad. There is little resolved at the end for most of the characters I grew attached to. That which about them that was screwed up remained so and I have to be satisfied with that. Typical Faulkner.